'Imagine a world without herbs and spices! What if there were no such thing as vanilla ice cream, cinnamon buns or the aromatic flavour of juniper in gin? [And no] basil pesto, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, pickles, chilli sauce, seeded breads or tacos topped with zesty salsa!'
One of my favourite regular guests at the cooking school was spice master Ian 'Herbie' Hemphill. A charming and delightful gentleman, Herbie is a veritable font of knowledge on spices and herbs, and loves nothing more than sharing all that he knows with his customers and his readers.
So why is he called 'Herbie'? He explains that he was nicknamed 'Herbie' in the mid 1960s, as it was rather unusual for one to have parents who owned a herb farm. Once you've met him, you find that Herbie really suits his personality too.
As background, in the 1950s Herbie's parents, Rosemary and John Hemphill, owned Somerset Cottage, a herb farm and nursery outside of Sydney. Pioneers in the industry in Australia, both went on to write numerous books on the topic. The titles included Fragrance and Flavour: the Growing and Use of Herbs, written by Rosemary and published in 1959, notably the first book of its kind in the country.
As a child, Herbie helped with the family business, earning pocket money by cutting, drying and propagating herbs with his father. It was this immersion into the world of herbs that ignited what would become for him a lifelong interest.
Herbie has had many interesting experiences during his lifetime of working in the spice trade. He worked in the family business for many years. Later, when his parents retired, he managed a spice company in Singapore and then spent twelve years working on the manufacturing and marketing of herbs and spices for a corporate firm. In 1996, he and his wife, Elizabeth, founded Herbie's Spices, an artisan business which boasts the largest selection of herbs and spices for sale and export. With this extensive experience, and a few books of his own under his belt, Herbie is now recognised as Australia's leading culinary herb and spice expert. Herbie says that fifty years of giving lectures and classes and talking with a wide range of consumers, including chefs and food manufacturers, has given him insight into the information people want to know.
The culmination of Herbie's lifelong experience in the industry is The Spice & Herb Bible and a new expanded and completely revised third edition has just been released. The Spice & Herb Bible is a fascinating A to Z encyclopedic reference and recipe book that delves deep into the world of herbs and spices. In Part One, there's a short history of the spice trade, from 2000 BCE to the present day, with morsels that include a tale about Pierre Poivre, the original 'Peter Piper' who smuggled clove, cassia and nutmeg plants out of the Dutch-controlled Spice Islands!
Herbie explains the difference between a spice and a herb (the leaf is generally the 'herb', whereas any other part of the plant is a 'spice'; and gives definitions on essential oils, Oleoresins, essences and extracts. You can learn how to grow and dry your own herbs; and also get hints and tips from Herbie on the best way to buy and store spices and herbs. There's a snippet on 'buyer beware' (particularly when it comes to buying saffron), as well as quality control and best practice.
Spice Notes in Part Two covers 97 spices and herbs listed by their common name. These are the ones that are most used in cooking, or have particularly interesting history and culinary applications. Botanical names are also given for each spice or herb, as well as details about the plant and the plant family, its variety, other given names, flavor group, parts of the plant used, processing, buying and storage, uses and culinary information, plus recipes which have been developed by Herbie's daughter, Kate. This chapter starts with Ajowan and ends with Zedoary, or white turmeric.
The art of combining spices is covered in Part Three of the book, possibly my favourite section of the book. Herbie writes about the principles of making spice blends, how to blend spices, and using herbs in blends. And then readers are given instructions for creating a variety of spice blends; including curry powders, dukkah, chaat masala or chai, ras el hanout and za'atar. The opening paragraphs for each offer truly delicious reading.
My conversation with Herbie...
Hello Herbie, long time no see! Thank you for taking the time for this conversation with me.
Hi Lizzy, It has been a long time. And thank you for all your lovely FB and Twitter comments, they are much appreciated.
It's my pleasure. ヅ
Congratulations on the publication of third edition of The Spice & Herb Bible. It is a magnificent tome indeed. How long did it take to compile?
One could say it took a lifetime, however it is actually the culmination of work that started over 15 years ago with my first edition of Spice Notes that was published in 2000. The larger, completely revised edition with over 120 new recipes developed by our daughter Kate, took a good 18 months to compile.
You grew up on a herb farm and have spent 50 years working in the herb and spice industry (a truly interesting childhood and a great life's work!). Would you please share your earliest memory of herbs and spices.
My earliest memories go back to when I was about nine years old and I was helping my father pick scented geraniums, lemon verbena, rose petals, lavender and bay leaves. Dad was making an amazing pot-pourri that contained these herbs plus cinnamon, cloves, allspice, orris root powder and essential oils of geranium.
If I may ask, what are the most bizarre questions you've been asked about herbs or spices over the years? [if you don't wish to answer this one, that's quite ok]
A lot that have seemed bizarre to me are probably pretty obvious ones such as ‘What is the difference between a herb and a spice’? or ‘What can I use as an aphrodisiac’? or ‘Cinnamon bark, is that for the dog’? That last one falls into the "silly" category!
You've travelled the world in search of the best and most interesting herbs and spices. Please name some of the more unusual or exotic places you have visited.
India is really up there as a most unusual and exotic location that will assault all one’s senses. Visiting the largest chilli market in Guntur in south India is an experience I will never forget. Travelling to the cardamom hills in Kerala and staying in the town of Kumily brings me back to what the spice trade is all about. The town even smells of cardamom!
The Indonesian spice islands of Banda, Ternate and Tidore are seriously exotic, and for me, were mesmerising as I stood on these remote, idyllic islands and thought of how these tiny islands were at the epicentre of global trade for the Dutch East India and British East India companies by the 16th century.
Turkey produces much of the world’s sumac, and visiting the remote town of Nizip in the south east was amazing. Having lunch with our hosts on the banks of the Euphrates, and looking across the river to dwellings cut into the rock face thousands of years ago was awe inspiring.
Do you have a favourite herb or spice? Please tell me which and how you like to use it.
Cardamom is one of my favourites as it compliments both sweet and savoury dishes so well. It has a light, refreshing aroma and flavour that is equally at home in cakes, biscuits, and desserts as it is in curries, tagines and stir fries.
[One of my favourite recipes from Herbie is caramel bananas with cardamom, a dish he created on one of the many occasions that he visited the cooking school to give a spice appreciation workshop.]
Do you have an all-time favourite recipe?
It has to be my Saturday Curry. It is easy to make, result is foolproof and makes a great impression for a recipe that is so easy to make.
Who are your food heroes and who or what inspires you?
Food heroes (in no particular order of preference) are; Neil Perry for his hard work and consistency, Martin Benn at Sepia for his talent and humility, Tetsuya (need I say more?), Maggie Beer for her charm and accessibility, Julie Goodwin who has kept her feet on the ground after so much attention, and dozens of other hard working chefs and food professionals who are too numerous to mention!
What inspires me, are people who work hard, are honest and consistent and never devalue their offer for short term fame or gain.
Is there a recipe you'd like to share with Good Things readers?
Although I’ve shared my recipe for my favourite curry, Kuwaiti Fish Stew is an amazing combination of flavours that will excite the most jaded palate (see the recipe below).
[Ah, yes, I remember this one, you made it once when you came to the cooking school!].
Yes, that's right Lizzy, I did.
And finally, what's for dinner tonight?
Indian Vegetarian Sambar. When I am in India I indulge in many vegetarian dishes, and this is one of my favourites.
Thanks again Herbie for your time, it's been a delight to catch up.
My pleasure, Lizzy.
Herbie's Kuwaiti Fish Stew recipe...
The amazing combination of large amounts of fresh green herbs, tomatoes and onions, and a hefty dose of spice makes this fish dish absolutely unforgettable, and you will return to it time after time. The recipe was given to us by Kuwaiti friends just as Herbie's Spices opened its doors in 1997, and it's been a consistent favourite ever since.
HERBIE'S KUWAITI FISH STEW
2 teaspoons each Herbie’s Spices:
Cumin Seed Ground, Pepper Black ASTA Ground, Cardamom Seed Ground, Turmeric Alleppey Ground*
1 teaspoon salt
2 Herbie’s Spices Black Limes**
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
3 teaspoons crushed garlic
1 large green chilli, chopped
1 bunch each fresh dill and coriander, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
2-3 tablespoons tomato paste
2-3 cups water
4 x white fish fillets
2 tablespoons plain flour
Mix ground spices and salt. Pierce limes 4-5 times with a skewer. In a large pot, saute onions in 2 tablespoons oil. Mix in garlic, chilli, dill, coriander, tomatoes, tomato paste, black limes and 2 teaspoons spice mix. Add 2 cups water, stir, cover and keep warm while preparing fish. Sprinkle remaining spice mixture on both sides of fish and dust with flour. Fry lightly on both sides. Transfer fish from pan to stewing pot. Add more water if needed to cover fish. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes until fish is done. Serve with rice. This will serve 4.
* Alleppy turmeric has the highest colour and curcumin content and deepest flavour. It's also known as Indian Saffron, Madras Turmeric. Botanical name is Curcuma longa.
** Black limes are also known as dried lemons, dried limes, Loomi, Oman lemons. Botanical Name is Citrus aurantifolia.
Thank you kindly to Ian Hemphill, Robert Rose and the publicity team at DMCPRMedia for giving me the opportunity to catch up with Ian and to review The Spice & Herb Bible. This tome will have pride of place on my bookshelves.
Tell me dear readers, can you imagine a world without herbs and spices? What are your favourites?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.